( Chapter 5)
*Well, here I am again, Father... right back where I started. One more piece of trash on L2's dirty streets.*
*Yeah, yeah, I know; you didn't want me to end up this way. You and Sister Helen wanted something better for me, and I nearly had it for a while. But I screwed up. Don't I always?*
*It wasn't his fault. I shouldn't'a kissed him. I knew he wasn't...*
He cut himself off, swallowing; there was a pause, then he went on.
*I guess I screwed up with the others, too. Damned if I know how, though. Maybe I just wasn't good enough to fit into their perfect little post-war world.*
*Well, you don't need me bitching about my problems. I figure you know all about it, anyway... You and Sister Helen should keep an eye out for Wufei, okay, Father? He needs a little heavenly help. Nudge him at the right girl or something.*
*I'll be seeing you.*
Duo crossed himself and slowly stood, holding onto a fallen stone block for support as his head spun; then he carefully picked his way across to the gate, wincing at a stab of pain from his ribs. *Damn muggers. You'd think they'd have something better to do than pick on an ex-Gundam pilot... especially a broke one.* He paused, looking around, as a familiar feeling prickled the hair on the back of his neck. *Someone's watching me... too many places they could be hiding. Let's move along and see what happens.*
*Not that I really care.*
As he made his way back to the building he'd selected, more as a relatively safe place to dump his stuff than because it appealed to him, most of his attention was focused behind him; but he never caught a glimpse of who was following him. *Which means they're staying a long way back, but keeping in touch. They're good.*
*There aren't very many people who are that good at physically tailing someone. Most people rely on bugs and cameras. So...*
*...I think I know who it is.*
Briefly, Duo considered doing something -- trying to ditch his pursuers, turning back and confronting them, something -- but the momentary impulse passed.
*Screw it. If they wanna follow me all the way, let 'em. If they wanna talk, I'll see what they have to say. If not... fuck them.*
*Fuck them anyway.*
"What the fuck do you want?"
There was silence for a few seconds; then the raspy, hoarse voice spoke again. "Come on! Tell me! You must want something, if you finally noticed I wasn't around."
Heero stepped forward, reaching for Duo's arm. "Duo, we were worried about you--" His hand closed over the trenchcoat sleeve for an instant before Duo spun around, jerking his arm free and staggering back against the wall.
"Oh, so it's a guilt trip, is it? Feeling sorry for the poor little street rat?" Duo's face was invisible in the dimness, but his cracked voice dripped contempt and bitterness.
Heero gaped in shock, hand still outstretched, horrified by what he'd felt. *He's so thin -- his arm felt so fragile, like I could snap it with a finger...* Licking suddenly dry lips, he spoke hesitantly. "Duo... why didn't you call me? I thought... we..."
"We what? We cared about each other? I thought so, too, but I guess I was wrong. You changed all your fucking phone numbers, Heero! Your e-mail addresses, your message service-- I went away for a month to get my head straight and you just couldn't wait to block me out!"
Quatre stepped forward, one hand pressed to his chest. "But, Duo--"
"Oh, Quatre, Trowa... did you have fun hopping from colony to colony? You were moving so fast for a while there, I had a hard time finding you... much good it did me, though. You have such efficient secretaries. 'Oh, I'm afraid Master Quatre is in a meeting right now, so sorry, but if you leave your name and number I'll make sure he gets the message...' I must've left a dozen messages with six different people. I even checked into a hotel for a week so I'd have a stable number you could call me on. I guess street trash like me isn't high enough on your priorities though."
He pushed away from the wall and took a few steps forward. "And Relena! I'd say you got your secretary from the same place Quatre and Trowa get theirs, only their secretaries were at least polite. The last time I tried calling yours, she told me 'Miss Relena doesn't associate with worthless bums,' and hung up."
One final step brought Duo into the slowly brightening fan of light from the grimy window; Quatre and Relena gasped. His face was painfully thin, sharp cheekbones protruding above hollow cheeks; a livid purple bruise was swelling one side of his jaw, and there were dark rings under his eyes. He glared at them all, feverish eyes staring into each face in turn... except Wufei's. His eyes flicked quickly away, running over Heero and Trowa.
"Ooh, uniforms. Nice. Does this mean you want me for a mission?" He laughed, a dry, humourless sound. "Sorry, I don't do that any more. I don't have anything left to give. So why don't you all just turn around and go back to your nice little happy lives, and leave me to rest in peace? Haven't I earned that, at least?"
Heero found his voice again, after hearing that. "Peace? You call this peace?! Come on, Duo--" He reached out for Duo's arm again, but he wrenched away; the violent movement made him lose his balance and stagger sideways into the wall. Leaning against it for support, he drew in breath to reply, then lost it in a series of rattling coughs that doubled him over, clutching at his ribs.
"Don't-- fuckin' touch me-- Yui," he managed to gasp out between spasms; then he straightened slowly, wiping at his mouth. "Don't any of you touch me. Just piss off and leave me alone!"
"No," Quatre insisted desperately. "You can come and stay with Trowa and me. You need time to get better--"
"Yeah, right, like I want to play 'three's a crowd' in your little love nest. I don't need the pity."
"Duo, you're coming back with us if I have to knock you out and drag you back to the shuttle by your damn braid!" Relena clenched her fists, trembling.
He snorted, turning away. "Go home, Relena."
"He's coming home with me," Wufei said harshly.
Unseen by anyone, Duo's eyes widened.
*Shit. He sounds pissed. I guess he really didn't want to come, and the others dragged him... I just keep screwing up, don't I?*
*The least I can do is not give him any more grief.*
Duo shrugged and slumped, all the resistance draining out of his posture. "Whatever," he said tiredly.
Wufei stepped forward and reached out tentatively, ready to pull back if Duo yanked away; to his surprise, there was no reaction as he touched Duo's shoulder. He slid his hand down to tug at Duo's elbow, gently steering him towards the door. "We'll just wait out in the hall, okay?" he said in a quieter voice. "The others will get your stuff."
Duo nodded almost imperceptibly, pulling his thin coat around him as he moved. Seeing that, Heero shrugged out of his uniform's overcoat and tried to put it around Duo's shoulders as he passed, but the braided boy just twisted out from under it and let it fall to the floor.
Wufei stopped and picked it up, settling it carefully around him. "It's cold. You need the extra layer. Leave it, okay?"
Duo didn't respond... but he didn't drop the coat, either.
As Wufei pulled the door closed behind them, Quatre stopped fighting to stay upright and slumped against Trowa, tears in his eyes. "Oh... oh, it hurts..."
"Quatre?!" Trowa grabbed at him, supporting him as he sagged, clutching at his chest.
"He... he was closed off when we came in, I couldn't feel him, but... when he started talking... He's hurt, and afraid, and angry, and he feels betrayed... Trowa, he's starting to hate us! But at the same time he's so lonely... and then when Wufei spoke, it was guilt and grief and... love."
Heero winced and closed his eyes, swallowing painfully. "I told Wufei to go back to Earth and leave Duo alone... and it turns out he's the only one of us Duo doesn't flinch away from. Oh God... the phone numbers. I never even thought of that. That reporter got hold of all my contact details and was after me for an 'exclusive interview' on my relationship with Relena. Then he sold them, and it was a dozen reporters... oh, hell. When I changed them all, I never even considered that Duo might..." He broke off and turned away, rubbing at his face.
"What's he afraid of?" Relena whispered; Quatre shook his head.
"I don't know. I just feel the emotion, not the why of it."
"Maybe..." Trowa said softly, "if he feels we betrayed him, and now here we are... he's afraid we'll do it again?"
Heero jerked into motion, stalking off towards another door. "Get his stuff and we'll get out of here," he said hoarsely.
Relena nodded. "I'll check the kitchen," she said. "You stay here and catch your breath, all right?"
"We can help--" Quatre protested.
"You're the colour of skim milk, Quatre," she said bluntly, "and I really don't think Duo has enough belongings that all four of us are needed to pack for him."
In the other room, Heero took a deep breath and scrubbed his palm over his eyes; then he lowered his hand and looked around, blinking quickly. It looked like this was where Duo had slept; there was a dirty-looking blanket on the floor in one corner, next to a nearly empty duffel bag and a battered shoebox with his baseball cap sitting on top of it. Scooping up the duffel bag, Heero took a quick look inside.
It was immediately obvious that Duo was wearing all his warmest clothes. The only things in the bag were a couple of ragged T-shirts, a ripped pair of jeans, a change of underwear and a sliver of soap in a plastic bag.
*He had his CDs and a portable player... his laptop... what happened to them? Did he sell them? Give them away? If he still has them, I don't want to leave them behind.* Glancing around for any sign of them, his eye fell on the shoebox; when he picked it up it seemed too light, but he pulled off the rubber band holding the lid down anyway.
Relena walked out of the tiny kitchen, suspiciously red-eyed but holding onto her composure. "There's nothing in there except a plastic bottle of water," she reported. "Did Heero get his clothes?"
Quatre blinked up at her from his seat on the windowsill, Trowa leaning against the wall next to him. "He hasn't come out yet... Heero?" he called.
"Heero?" Relena called softly, pushing open the door.
He was standing silently in the centre of the room, facing away, looking down at something in his hands.
"Heero... what's wrong?" Quatre and Trowa followed Relena in, concerned.
"He kept these," Heero whispered. "He doesn't have anything else, but he kept these..."
He turned around, green and black fabric trailing from his hands; his foot knocked against the shoebox and it tipped over, darker green and light blue cloth tumbling onto the floor.
"Trowa's turtleneck," he choked out. "One of Quatre's dress shirts. My tank top. Wufei's sash... and photos..." He thrust out his hands, shaking, and the black fabric slipped from his fingers, silk whispering to the floor with sections of an embroidered dragon showing in the folds. It left behind a slim sheaf of photographs; Quatre took them and numbly leafed through them, stopping at one he remembered Relena taking at his party. All five pilots, happy together...
Duo leaned against the wall and stared at his feet as Wufei called the Preventers' L2 branch office and called for a van to pick them up.
*He'd never make it back to the shuttleport if he had to walk,* he thought, hanging up. *Gods know how he made it to Maxwell Church and back! He's so thin... and I don't like that cough... What else is he hiding under that coat?*
*Damn it, Duo, what have you done to yourself? What have we done to you? You were always so strong... nothing made you lose your smile. Was it all a mask?*
*It must have been, or we couldn't have broken you like this. And I remember... you had nightmares. You hid them from everyone except Heero, but...*
The door opened beside them and the others emerged, Heero carrying the scuffed duffel bag.
"There's a van coming to take us to the shuttleport," Wufei announced, stuffing the phone back into his pocket. "Is that everything?"
The others nodded, looking everywhere but at him and Duo; he eyed them suspiciously, but let it pass. "Let's go then; it's time we got out of here and got Duo home."
Wufei completely missed the look Quatre shot at him, as he was concentrating on Duo, one hand barely touching his elbow as he started shakily down the stairs. When a piece of trash shifted under Duo's foot, making him stumble, Wufei caught and steadied him; then Duo coughed, struggling to suppress it, and Wufei set his jaw and picked him up. *He's not even going to make it down the stairs, damn it!*
Trowa turned back, looking up at them. "Do you want me to take him?"
Quatre's eyes widened and he nearly tripped as he felt a burst of fear; Wufei blinked and glanced down at Duo as he felt a thin hand clutch at his jacket.
"No..." he said slowly; "...I've got him. He hardly weighs a thing..."
Quatre swallowed and relaxed as he felt the fear subside; there was a faint feeling of relief, then nothing. Glancing back, he saw that Duo had closed his eyes.
Wufei spread a blanket over Duo, who had been settled into one of the shuttle's reclining seats, and sat down beside him. The seats were more like luxurious armchairs than airplane seating, arranged as if the cabin was an informal lounge instead of in rows; they could be pushed down and rearranged into narrow beds, and in fact they'd slept on board instead of going to a hotel, so he knew Duo was comfortable. Still, he was concerned; Duo looked a little cold...
He stood and took a step towards the front of the cabin, only to be brought up short by a light tug on his jacket. Looking down, he saw Duo's hand clinging to the hem -- then Duo let go, swallowing convulsively, and huddled under the blankets, looking away.
Wufei sat down again.
*I don't understand this. I don't understand this at all,* he thought confusedly. *I hurt him. I caused all this. I deserve nothing better from him than contempt -- and yet... he doesn't want me out of his sight?*
Leaning sideways, he caught Trowa's eye and beckoned. "Could you get us a couple of cups of tea?" he asked softly, flicking his eyes sideways at Duo. "It was cold out there; I'd like something hot to drink."
Trowa nodded, understanding who really needed the warmth; when he came back, Wufei's cup was black and sugarless with a slice of lemon floating in it, and Duo's was practically solid with milk and sugar.
Trowa settled back in his seat, towards the front of the cabin, and closed his eyes.
*He's just shut down. Not a word since 'Whatever'. It's worse than when he was snarling at us in that hoarse voice.*
*I've seen him silent before, but that was different...*
Sitting comfortably on the balcony, book lying forgotten on his knees, Trowa was watching the sunset. Brilliant reds and golds were splashed across the western sky; the slow shifts in colour were mesmerising.
Hearing soft footsteps behind him, he carefully didn't wince or sigh. Heero, Quatre and Wufei were all on missions, so there was only one person it could be; and while he didn't dislike Duo, exactly, his never-ending chatter could be a bit hard to take. Especially since he wasn't truly satisfied unless the person he was talking to talked back.
To Trowa's surprise, though, Duo didn't launch straight into a monologue; instead, he walked quietly across to the railing and leaned on it, staring out at the sunset. He was silent for several minutes, then sighed.
"That's beautiful. You don't get anything like that on a colony..." He sighed again, and turned around. "Mind if I sit here?"
Trowa shook his head, and Duo settled down in the chair next to him, one leg tucked up and his chin resting on his knee. They stayed there for over half an hour, watching in comfortable silence until the last smudge of colour faded from the sky; then Duo stood and stretched, yawning.
"Uff... off to bed for me, I think. Wanna do this again some time?"
Trowa smiled slightly. "Sure."
*And we ended up friends, instead of me just tolerating him. Now...*
"Excuse me... Trowa, are you asleep?"
He opened his eyes and looked up to see Relena leaning over him. "No."
"Oh, good. I didn't want to wake you if you were, but... I really need to make a vidphone call."
He raised an eyebrow, but stood up and politely gestured for her to take his seat; she turned it towards the vidphone and sat down, quickly tapping in a com code from memory. As she drummed her fingers, waiting for the connection to go through, he sat down nearby and watched with growing interest.
*Relena, fidgeting? She's normally far more controlled than that. It's certainly been a stressful week, but still... who's she calling?*
The call went through and was answered by a slim, impeccably groomed woman. She smiled as soon as she recognised Relena, a practiced, false expression that didn't reach her eyes.
< < Miss Relena! It's good to see you again. I'm afraid it's getting harder and harder to put off your appointments; there are several very important people who have been quite insistent, wanting to know when your 'personal business' would be taken care of. Will you be back in the office soon? > >
"Yes, Marie, I think so... but that's not why I'm calling," Relena said crisply. She leaned forwards slightly, fidgets gone. "I'm sure you remember the general memo I issued four days ago?"
< < Why... of course, Miss Relena. > > The smile was a little strained now, Trowa noted; out of the corner of his eye he saw Duo shift, looking towards them from the back of the cabin.
"And I believe you said you hadn't encountered Duo Maxwell?"
< < The name isn't familiar, no. > >
"That's odd," Relena said coldly, "because I know you have an excellent memory... and Duo tells me he tried to call me several times."
Marie stiffened. < < If it's a case of my word against his-- > >
"It's even more odd," Relena cut her off, "now that I come to think of it, because I know that Duo's name is second on the list of people who should be put through to me at any time of the day or night, no matter who I am with or what is going on. You have assured me on more than one occasion, Marie, that you have that list off by heart... yet his name 'isn't familiar'? You have no trouble remembering Heero Yui, Quatre Winner, Lady Une or the others. Why this mental block when it comes to Duo?"
Marie burst out angrily, < < He's nobody! A bum! He was probably after a handout! You have better things to do than waste your time on trash like-- > >
"Duo Maxwell is not a bum, or a nobody, or trash!" Relena snarled. "He is a friend! And I will decide who I associate with, Marie, not my secretary!"
< < Miss... Miss Relena, I only-- > >
< < Miss Relena, no! I-- > > Marie was cut off as Relena's fingers stabbed at buttons, transferring the call elsewhere; there was a moment of static, then a man in dark blue uniform glanced up out of the screen.
< < ;Can I help-- Your Majesty! > > He saluted, sitting up straight.
"Georg, I want you to go to my office and inform Marie Reynard that she has ten minutes to pack her personal belongings, then escort her out of the building. She is not to be allowed back in; I want all her security clearances revoked and her pass confiscated. She is to have two weeks' pay in lieu of notice. I will not be giving her a reference."
< < Uh-- yes, ma'am! > > Georg stiffened, saluting again. < < Ah... do you wish me to pass on any information to the press liaison? > >
"Yes, I'd better, hadn't I? Hm... tell Ryan not to issue a statement unless there are inquiries. If any reporters do get wind of it, he is to say only that Ms. Reynard was fired for a 'breach of trust'."
< < Got it, ma'am. > >
"Thank you, Georg." *click!*
Wufei listened to the conversation with narrowed eyes, glaring across the cabin at the image in the screen; when the secretary nearly spat out the word 'bum', he glanced involuntarily to the side and saw Duo flinch and shrink back.
*If I had that onna in front of me, and a sword in my hand--!* His eyes widened as he heard Relena's response and the end of the call, and he had to restrain himself from sighing in relief as he saw amazement and faint hope flicker over Duo's face.
*It's definitely a start,* he thought. *Duo can begin mending his relationship with at least one of his friends...*
Wufei let the silence stretch out for a couple of minutes, giving Duo time to let this development sink in; then he leaned over and carefully phrased a request he'd been thinking about ever since he realised just how thin Duo had become.
"Duo, I know you hate hospitals... but if we take you to Preventers headquarters, to Sally Po, will you let her take a look at you?"
There was an uncomfortably long pause; then Duo shrugged one shoulder.
"Thank you." Wufei flipped open his phone.
* * * * *
"Sally Po here."
< < Chang Wufei. > >
Sally frowned briefly at her vidphone as the screen stayed dark. "Good to hear from you, Wufei, though I should warn you that Une's been muttering about 'four days and no reports'. Did you find Duo?"
< < Yes. If I bring him into the infirmary, could you take a look at him? > >
"Oh, no..." Sally groaned. "What's he done to himself now?"
< < Yes? > >
She scowled at the blank screen again, then light dawned. "Ah... you're on your cell phone?"
< < Yes. > >
"Can you speak freely?"
< < No. > >
"Sitting right next to Duo, huh?"
< < Yes. > >
"I get you. Is he in bad shape?"
< < Yes. > >
"Damn. All right, bring him in."
< < Thank you. We'll be there in six hours. > > *click!*
"Oh, God," Sally moaned, flopping back in her chair and letting her head and arms dangle. "The human superball is bouncing his way back into my clinic. Why, oh Lord, are you punishing me so?" she demanded melodramatically.
Six hours later -- six hours that Sally spent Duo-proofing the infirmary -- Heero opened the door and Wufei walked in carrying a blanket-wrapped bundle. Sally turned around from her computer and sighed, jaw set determinedly.
"All right, Duo, I want you to sit down and be--"
Her eyes widened and she broke off, then continued in a hushed voice.
end 'Reunion' chapter 5
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